WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW!
Walter White is restless.
A month out of the drug game and adjusting to life as a (quasi-) legitimate citizen, tonight’s season premiere of “Breaking Bad” sees America’s favorite meth cook sleepwalking his way through the routines of the average man, longing for the days when death lurked around every corner, and wits and guts were the only way to survive.
The transition from a high-octane lifestyle to sedentary can be difficult for anyone, but the diffused rage that characterizes Walt’s every action is clear in every scene. When he mentions expanding the car wash business to Skyler, we can already hear the empire-building mechanisms creaking to life once more. You might be able to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface, but you sure as hell can’t turn Scarface into Mr. Chips. Now that Walter’s tasted the top of the game, it won’t be long until he can’t help but try to haul himself out of the suburban purgatory he’s created — that’s assuming he gets the chance, of course.
Following up on the porcelain-shattering revelations of last season’s final minutes, Hank’s finally caught onto the kingpin who’s been under his nose for over a year, and he’s not wasting any time. While ordinary shows would choose to spread the arc of Hank’s investigation over a few episodes or an entire season, the genius of “Breaking Bad” is its ability to burn through the story in a single episode.
The episode’s already-tense closing minutes are made even stronger by the sheer audacity of showrunner Vince Gilligan and company. In one fell swoop, we see the inevitable confrontation fans have waited four seasons for, and we see how pointless and stupid it all really was. Hank can’t turn Walt in (for fear of losing credibility), and Walt won’t kill Hank (because then Hank will never know he was beaten). The pair are locked in a stalemate, and only the onrushing deadline of Walt’s now-confirmed death has any chance of breaking it.
In other morally-compromised news, Jesse’s worse than ever. The blood on his hands simply won’t wash off, and no matter how many ways he tries to make up for his crimes, the overwhelming guilt that’s become his defining character trait continues to drag him deeper and deeper into a black hole of self-loathing and suicidal tendencies. Even the glories of Badger’s impromptu “Star Trek” script can’t break Jesse out of his funk — a scene that sees him driving around a poor neighborhood is at once uplifting and heartbreakingly sad, as it becomes obvious that Jesse’s tender heart isn’t matched with a clever brain. There seems to be no way for Jesse to redeem himself for the five seasons of blood on his hands, and only time will tell if he succeeds in this final attempt to break good.
At least he’ll know he’s better than Walter, though. The conversation between Jesse and Walt is by far the standout scene in an episode full of them. In a clever parallel to last season’s finale conversation at Jesse’s house, Walter once again brings Jesse his $5 million, but the tone is completely different. Where last season saw Jesse cowered in fear, hiding his bongs and secreting a gun on his person, this season sees a Jesse that will barely even acknowledge Walt’s presence, much less show him the slightest modicum of respect.
Even Walt’s usual web of lies can’t draw him in. Jesse knows damn well that Walt killed Mike, and that final lie killed the last modicum of respect he had left for his former teacher. The shot of Walt silently toying with Jesse’s unmoved bong as Jesse stares determinedly in the opposite direction speak volumes about the gulf that’s grown between the pair in an incredibly short time.
Walt’s impotence in the face of Jesse’s accusations speaks to a larger truth about this final season — Walt’s lost his mojo. Heisenberg is dead, his business connections have dried up and his cancer is back. Walt’s essentially reverted back to his season one state, stuck smiling at the slack-jawed fools at the car wash and sneaking his drug business behind Skyler’s back.
Even his attempts to channel his Heisenberg persona fail. Jesse doesn’t fall for the smooth-talking snake, and his attempts to intimidate Hank are met with a bloodied face and wounded ego. It’s a far cry from ‘the one who knocks,' and a bold move by Gilligan and Co. By removing all the power and toxic pride from Walter, they’ve managed to bring at least some of the audience sympathy back around to his side, leaving us wondering if we’ll end up bidding the man a fond farewell rather than breathing a sigh of relief as he falls into Hell.
The only thing we can be certain of is that we have no idea where the show is going. By satisfying most of our expectations in the first episode, Gilligan and Co. have cleared the playing field, giving themselves seven episodes to tell the story no one expected. All we know for sure is that in nine months, Walt’s going to Denny’s. And Hell’s riding with him.
Costuming was spot on tonight. The ugly sweater that Walt wears at the car wash couldn’t make him look less threatening, and putting Skyler in high enough heels that she towers over Walt is a fantastic symbol of his returned emasculation.
If this is the last we see of Badger and Skinny Pete, I can’t think of a better sendoff.
So when does Marie find out? She’s the only adult on the show that doesn’t know; how long can Hank keep a secret?
Was Hank planning to tell Walt Jr. in the final scene?
Great moments in parallelism: Walt’s pose and habits as he pukes in the toilet are an unconscious echo of Gustavo Fring’s recovery from poisoning the cartel bosses.
"Breaking Bad" shows on Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
Walter White is restless.